“Cod is best during the winter. Of course, you knew that, coming from Newfoundland?” I was with my Norwegian colleague, Egil, at the university I work at in Trondheim. I returned his question with a blank stare. During much of the winter in Newfoundland, the cod fishery is closed. And when it was available, I don't recall winter season cod being anything to write home about. So what was he talking about? Taking my silence as his cue, Egil launched into a lesson with a seafood lover's zeal. “The cod is spawning at this time of year. We call them skrei. They are full of health, full of flavour, and - most importantly - full of roe. It’s traditional to boil the cod and serve it with its roe and liver. It’s a meal for celebrations!”
I was totally stunned. Same fish, different side of the pond. So why was the spawning cod considered a delicacy in one fishery but virtually unheard of in the other?
This post is about rediscovering a fish in Norway that I was practically raised with in Newfoundland. I look into the skrei fishery, which refers to the unique Northeast Arctic Cod stock - and represents the world’s only remaining sustainable cod fishery. I also share a fantastic recipe that I've tested over the past several weeks for poached cod with its roe and liver, prepared in the traditional Norwegian style.
It was a sunny Friday afternoon and immediately after my seafood lesson from Egil I walked from the university to my local seafood shop, the resplendent Ravnkloa, to check out the skrei for myself. And there they were: strikingly large cod fish, darker green in colour than usual, presented on ice behind the glass counter and cut part way into steaks. Nearby, metal trays were piled high with gelatinous liver and a stack of membranous roe pouches. Amazing!
Why no skrei in Newfoundland?
The first thing I wanted to know was why spawning cod was not available back home in Newfoundland. There, cod is so ubiquitous that it’s simply referred to by locals as “fish." This was an especially poignant question considering that cod was supposedly at its peak flavour during spawning season and that its roe and liver were generally held as delicacies. The liver highlights a notable difference because I was used to throwing this pasty, toxin-collecting organ overboard for the seagulls at my local fishing grounds in Newfoundland. I have never once considered eating one. A healthy liver would denote a very healthy fish. So what’s the deal? Why have I been missing out during all those years in Newfoundland?
After some investigating, I learned that the answer to the question of availability of spawning cod in Newfoundland is twofold. Firstly, the island's cod fishery is, for the most part, closed during spawning season due to sustainable management practises. It's hard to deny that that’s a good thing. But it begs the question as to why the Norwegian fishery doesn't adopt a similar strategy. This is where things get interesting, underscoring the second part to the answer. The secret, it turns out, lies in a special stock of cod found only in Norway. Technical speaking, it’s the same species as the cod found in Newfoundland (Gadus morhua), but this stock is special for its distinctly wandering spirit. The Northeast Arctic Cod stock, as it's called by scientists, leaves the coast and swims far into the freezing Barents Sea, returning to the coast in astounding abundance to mark the start of spawning season in February and March. Their fecundity shows in the official statistics: the fishery is considered sustainable and their numbers - and even individual fish sizes - are actually growing. This is particularly striking considering that cod has long been the poster child of unsustainable fishing practices - perhaps nowhere else as much as in my home of Newfoundland.
Consider it an evolutionary advantage: if a change in environment hurts one population and benefits another, the species overall is still in good shape. Marine biologists call it a "portfolio effect," so-called because risk is reduced in spreading out your investments, much like in a financial stock portfolio. In Norway, the coastal cod stock is in trouble. The migratory Northeast Arctic Cod, however, appears to be actually benefiting from changes in its environment. Today, it’s the largest cod stock in the world. Sweeping changes brought on by climate change may deserve part of the credit. A healthy ecosystem in the Barents Sea also deserves an appreciative nod. We would be remiss not to acknowledge astute fisheries practises, too: a rare example where scientific management and good communication between fishers, government scientists, and policymakers has produced a success story.
Let's compare once again with my dear home of Newfoundland. Here, the cod fishery infamously suffered a devastating crash and subsequent total closure in 1993-4. When it slowly started to re-open in the subsequent decades, the fishery operated under close monitoring from the Department of Fisheries of Oceans (DFO). Ever since, part of the management plan has included strict closures of cod during spawning season over much of the commercial fishing zones. The intent, as detailed on DFO’s website, is to “minimize the disturbance during cod spawning in case such disturbance might negatively affect spawning success.” This serves as a pretty clear reason why the spawning cod, along with its roe and liver, are nowhere to be found in the fish shops of Newfoundland. If it's in the name of rebuilding the cod stock, though, it's certainly a reason to get behind.
Cod's big-ish big comeback in Newfoundland
It was questionable timing when, in 1993 - one year after the Newfoundland government announced the moratorium of its cod fishery - a local scientist named George Rose published an article in Nature shedding light on the spawning habits of the Newfoundland Atlantic cod. Despite over 500 years of fishing history, Rose argued that embarrassingly little was known about the spawning behaviour of the Newfoundland Cod stock. The paper marked a breakthrough, linking observations with theory and underscoring the discovery of vulnerable cod “highways” during spawning migration. The paper ended on a dark note: “for Newfoundland cod, migration patterns may be expected to change, perhaps irrevocably, in response to population declines in the early 1990s.”
Fast forward two decades and the same scientist, now a leading authority on cod and an authour of a 2008 book about the flagship fish, has returned with more buoyant news about the state of the fishery. In a 2015 paper entitled “Northern cod comeback,” Rose writes what many a Newfoundlander has dreamt of writing: the fish are coming back.
Of course, we must fight the temptation to say that the cod problem is solved. In 2017, Rose warned the Canadian government not to ramp up the cod fishery at the first signs of a recovering stock, presenting a strong argument in another Nature article. In a 2018 interview Rose stated that numbers are, in fact, down once again, in no small part due to an overzealous "cod fishery transition." And so we continue to wait with baited breath about the fate of the Atlantic cod, buoyed by early results of a slow recovery, yet mindful of our trigger fingers on fish quotas all the same. While we wait, may we at least conjure up this image in our minds: a dinner table decked out with poached cod steaks, served with nuggets of rich roe and liver; a meal for celebrations, denoting abundance during a time when fresh food is scarce, hailing the miracle of a fish brimming with vigour and fecundity. And why not imagine it? It exists!
Poached skrei (spawning Northeast Arctic cod) served with its roe and liver
4 skrei steaks (about 800-1000 g)
1 quantity roe (about 400 g) in its membrane, wrapped in parchment
1-2 livers (about 400 g) cut into small chunks
1 onion, red or yellow, finely sliced
Distilled white vinegar (6-7% acetic acid)
Lots of mineral salt
Norwegian butter-and-parsley sauce (Sandefjordsmør)
200 g butter, cold and cut into small cubes
50 mL cream
Bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped
Salt and white pepper
If you have the time, place the cod steak in cold, fresh water for at least 2 hours before poaching. This adds a tenderness to the cooked flesh.
For the potatoes and roe
In a large pot, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil (I’ve found 50 g of mineral salt per 1 L of water is sufficient). Wrap the roe in parchment paper so that the ends are tucked in and it won’t unravel. Place the wrapped up roe in the boiled water. Meanwhile, in a second large pot, boiled the potatoes for approximately 25 minutes or until one falls off a fork when tested for readiness.
For the skrei
Prepare a third large pot for the skrei. Get it going on a heavy boil and add lots of salt (use 50 g per 1 L of water) along with the vinegar (1 tablespoon per 1 L of water). Remove the water from the heat and immediately add the cod so that they cook in the residual heat. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
For the liver
You have two options: fried or baked. Both are good, but I think I prefer baked. For the former, sauté with onion in plenty of butter for about 4 minutes on a medium-high and then add the liver. Stir gently as it cooks in its own rich oils. Add 1 tsp salt and pepper to taste. For the latter, placed roughly chopped chunks into a casserole dish along with the onion, some chunks of butter, and salt and pepper. Bake for 40 minutes at 180C.
For the sauce
Norwegian butter and parsley sauce (Sandefjordsmør) takes about 10 minutes to prepare and is best served fresh and not reheated. Try not to heat it too much or you’ll break the emulsion of lemon and butter.
Bring the cream up to a medium heat in a small saucepan. Add the butter one cube at a time, whisking all the while. When half the butter is used up, take the sauce off the heat and whisk in the lemon juice.
Keep whisking while adding the butter, one cube at a time. Season with salt and pepper, then add the parsley and serve fresh.
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.